Speaking to the British-Irish Association last week Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore acknowledged – re the commemoration at Castlederg – that republicans were entitled to remember their dead from the Troubles, but ‘tempered by a responsibility to respect victims’.
But how do you ‘respect’ someone you blew to smithereens? How do you ‘respect’ the person you reduced to paraplegia? How do you ‘respect’ the widow and children of someone into whose head you pumped 10 bullets? How do you ‘respect’ any of your victims when you continue to pursue your end goals by other means?
But Gilmore has raised an interesting question: is it possible to create or negotiate an environment in which paramilitaries, the security forces, political parties and ordinary people can remember their own dead without offending others, particularly those who regard themselves as victims? In Castlederg, for instance, it wasn’t so much that the IRA should choose to remember their fallen comrades (that goes with the territory in all conflict situations); it was more to do with the fact that there was no sense of apology or regret involved, no sense that what they were doing was hurting others, no sense that this was something which could be done privately.
Indeed, the very fact that Gerry Kelly made a political speech rather than a remembrance speech indicated that Castlederg was as much about ongoing propaganda as it was about dealing with the republican past.
On the other side of the fence matters aren’t helped by that element of paramilitary loyalism which wants to remember its dead; and often in a manner which is as offensively crass as that of the republican events they claim to find repugnant. Both sides seem to have concluded that it’s important that they send out a ‘we-haven’t-gone-away-you-know’ message to their supporters and grassroots. But they’re sending the message to others, too: the Provisionals to dissident republicans and the loyalists to mainstream unionism.
But why? Well, it’s probably to do with the fact that the primary cause of the conflict has not been resolved: namely, the ongoing battle between those who want a united Ireland and those who wish to remain in the United Kingdom. And bearing in mind that the British and Irish governments have indicated their willingness to facilitate any future majority vote for unity, both sides will continue their push-me-pull-you response to each other.
Sinn Fein and the PIRA may have stepped back from the ‘armed struggle’, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t continue to blur and undermine the signs, symbols, touchstones and benchmarks which identify Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom. And why shouldn’t they? It’s more or less what they said they would do back in 1998 and again when they negotiated their 2007 deal with the DUP.
Yet the more they prioritise that aspect of their agenda the more difficult they make it for unionists, even the small-u section, to take them on trust. And that, in turn, makes it hard – maybe even impossible – for any section of the pro-Union community to buy into the ‘reconciliation project’ spearheaded by Declan Kearney. In other words, in a political climate in which Sinn Fein seems incapable of even trying to build a consensual new era Northern Ireland with unionists, events like Castlederg bear all the hallmarks of a rubbing-your-noses-in-it exercise.
I know that Sinn Fein will counter every single point here with a response which embraces the ‘bigotry’ of the Orange Order, the ‘sectarianism’ of unionism and the ‘terrorism and oppression’ visited upon them by successive British governments and the security forces. So be it. But the fact is that both sides always carry with them the excuses for continuing to do what they always do, yet seem unable (or maybe they’re just unwilling) to pick up the something new and different which could deliver change and encourage genuine cooperation.
The Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan described the relationship between English and French speaking Canadians as being like ‘two solitudes’. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? For all the talking we may do about building a shared future, ending the segregation of our schools, knocking down the peace walls and ensuring that we never ‘return to the dark old days of the past’, we never seem to get around to doing anything about it. At a moment when we need the Assembly to come up with ways to tackle the problems of recession, poor housing, underachieving pupils and a struggling health service, the parties still seem to prefer motions which will divide them along the same old fault lines and allow them to play to their own political galleries.
So, here’s the 64,000 dollar question: do we really want a shared society and government (with all of the courage and compromise and changes required) or are we content with staying mostly on our own side of the fence and making sure that the ‘other side’ doesn’t get any advantages over us? Maybe Richard Haass should pose that question later in the week, because the answer he gets (or the answer he actually believes) will determine whether he will end up applying a sticking plaster in December or ushering in a breakthrough agreement.
Forty-five years ago Terence O’Neill made his Ulster at the crossroads speech and asked, ‘what kind of Ulster do we want?’. If truth be known, we are still waiting for an answer to that question. Oh yes, both sides have an answer to it: unfortunately it’s not the same answer. We remain at the ‘two solitudes’ phase of dialogue and negotiation and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that ‘two solitudes’ is what we will remain. The voices of hope and change are merely bellowing into a chasm.